Archive for the ‘slaves’ Category

Note: This post comes mainly from “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (1974) by Eugene Genovese, a Brooklyn-born Marxist historian. He is a white man who argues that it was not as bad as black people think:

When you think of white men and black women back in slave days in the US, the thing that springs to mind is the rape of black slave women by white slave masters. It is an image so striking and terrible that it is hard to get it out of your mind. In fact, the Mammy stereotype was pushed by the South to counteract it.

It is a fact of history: we have accounts of just such rapes. But while true, it was not as common as you might think. During the civil war when the Union army got to the large estates in the low country of Georgia and South Carolina the northerners were surprised by how unmixed the blacks were.

In our time something like 75% of blacks are part white, but at the end of the civil war fewer than 25% were. Most of the mixing of the races took place after the civil war, after the slaves were freed.

The government used to count mulattoes separately, those who were part black, part white. So we know where they lived and where they came from. They mostly did not come from the big slave estates in the deep South but from the towns and cities of the upper South, in states like Arkansas and Tennessee. As it turns out, these were the places where there was an oversupply of both white men and black women.

And just as we have accounts of rapes and of black children of white slave masters, so we also have accounts of the opposite, of slave masters who did not permit such things – not just according to the slave masters themselves, but even according to their slaves after they were freed and had no reason to lie about it.

In fact, we even have the diary of one slave master, a 44-year-old virgin apparently, who complains about the lack of sex in his life – even though he owned slave women. When he thought about where to get it, he did not think about his black slave women but the white prostitutes in town.

Some slave women, called fancy girls, mostly light-skinned, were sold to work in the household with the understanding that they would provide special services.

While some white men did openly live with black women, most hid what was going on as something shameful. As late as the 1970s, more than a hundred years after the civil war,  we have court records where it is assumed that having sex with a black woman is so shameful for a white man that none would admit to it unless it was true.

In most cases slave masters who had sex with black slave women were just using them, but it was not always that simple. From court records we know that sometimes it led to divorce and contested wills. While most white men did nothing to try to free their black children and black lovers, some did.

– Abagond, 2008.

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Sally Hemings

sallySally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave woman of Thomas Jefferson, the third American president. She was a maid at Monticello, his estate. It seems she had at least one of his children, but probably as many as six.

This was going on while he was president. Although it happened after his wife died, marriage was out of the question in those days: he was a white European, she was one-fourth black African.

Why it seems likely:

  • Her children believed it. They looked like him.
  • Jefferson freed them. He freed only six of his 267 slaves. Four were her children.
  • Jefferson was away from Monticello two-thirds of the time and yet was always at Monticello at just the right time when her children were conceived.
  • DNA tests show that at least one of her sons was a blood relation of the Jeffersons, most likely (though not necessarily) of  Thomas Jefferson himself.

Reasons for doubt:

  • The story was first planted in newspapers by his political enemies when he was president.
  • His white children said it was impossible.
  • Jefferson made no clear reference to Sally Hemings as anything other than a slave. He never freed her.

Jefferson himself never said whether it was true or false.

A year after he died Sally Hemings was valued at $50 (40 crowns). A year later his daughter Martha gave Hemings “her time”. She was free in all but name.

We have no pictures of Sally Hemings.

  • One slave said she was “mighty near white, very handsome, long straight hair down her back.”
  • Jefferson’s grandson said she was “light coloured and decidedly good-looking.”

She may have looked like Jefferson’s wife: some say the two were half-sisters.

She was three-quarters white. Her mother’s mother came from Africa as a slave. It seems her other three grandparents were white. Her name comes from her mother’s father, an English sea captain named Hemings.

She looked after Jefferson’s two daughters, Mary and Martha. This brought her overseas when Jefferson was in France.

She was in France with Jefferson from 1787 to 1789, from about age 14 to 16. She learned French, the harpsichord and probably needlework. Some say this was when it all started.

In France she was free: the law did not allow Jefferson to keep slaves. She became a paid servant, as did her brother, who became a good French cook. They both came back to America with Jefferson.

Her children:

  • 1790: Tom, boy – not in Jefferson’s records!
  • 1795: Harriet, girl – died at two
  • 1796: Edy, girl – died as a baby
  • 1798: Beverly, boy
  • 1801: Harriet, girl
  • 1805: Madison, boy
  • 1808: Eston, boy

Jefferson was president from 1801 to 1809.

In 1998 DNA tests were done on Tom’s and Eston’s descendants. Tom is not a blood relation of the Jeffersons (even though he looked like one), but Eston is. 

Jefferson freed her last four children, so Madison, Harriet and Beverly are probably his too. All but Madison moved far away and passed into white society.

We do not know if she could write. “The Diary of Sally Hemings” has yet to be discovered…

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